11.01.2014 - 11.01.2014 -17 °F
After a year-and-a-half wait, I finally got my chance to go to the Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin. I wanted to go last year, but the date that we scheduled ended up being about -35 degrees in the daytime. That was -35 before factoring in things like wind chill. (Celsius, but at that temp, it doesn't really matter which scale you're using).
This year it was only slightly better. I believe it was about -25 at the festival (-13F). Still cold, but not so cold that your eyeballs are turning into ice cubes. I have been excited about visiting the Ice Festival since we arrived in Harbin, as it is one of the two most famous things about Harbin (the other comes in a shiny green can). Each year, ice masters come to the city to construct these massive (several story) buildings and sculpture made of ice and lights (and, not being an engineer, I have no idea what else). They are incredibly beautiful and impossibly detailed. Each year they have a different theme and different buildings. They're always trying to outdo the last year. Here's what the blocks look like (They're about a 1'x1'x2').
The Ice Festival is sort of a mecca for photographers. It's a challenge to figure out the best way to shoot in these conditions because you have a set of unique issues to consider. I was all ready to get some of the greatest shots of my life, and then reality hit - I wasn't going to the festival as a photographer, I was going as a chaperone for about 15 teenagers. So, my dreams were dashed, but I did my job and tried not to get lost as I stopped for a few moments here and there to snap a quick picture (or three...come on, this place is begging for HDR!). So...here's what I got!
So let's talk about some of the issues photographing this amazing place (in case you get a chance to visit & aren't tied to a group of 15-year-olds).
1. You're shooting at night, but you're shooting really bright lights. It's a little like photographing Christmas lights. You might actually have to make your camera think it is underexposing the images in order to get the color from the lights (rather than pretty shadows on the snow and blown out white buildings). Basically, you should meter for the buildings. If you've ever shot a concert or something with bright stage lights, you've probably noticed that your camera gets incredibly confused. You're in a very dark room, but the pictures (on auto) come out super bright and super blurry. This is because the camera wants those dark black areas to be lit too and will leave the shutter open longer than necessary. Always meter for your subject. Always.
2. Because the buildings are so bright, if you want anything else in your photo (like friends, family, or said group of 15-year-olds, you will probably have to use a flash. I used my on-camera flash. Don't yell at me. It was too cold to dig out my flash and the batteries would have died within about 5 minutes from the cold. The biggest problem with the flash is that it lights up the snow directly in front of you.
This is what you get without flash. With the information in a RAW photo, you can see the faces, but they are lit by all the crazy going on around them.
Better to use the flash and get the face colors you want.
3. Biggest challenge: You're shooting at -25 degree weather. Ick. Your camera will freeze. Your face will freeze. If you take your gloves off to adjust your camera, your hands will freeze. When they freeze, they hurt...bad. Even walking around, you will get very cold...very, very cold. But don't even think about heading inside to warm up...if your frozen camera goes straight into those warm, humid buildings, a layer of frost could form on your entire camera body. Whatever you do, don't take your lens off in one of these hot-houses. It will frost over and then refreeze and then you will have to choose whether to just stay indoors until the camera completely thaws or go back out and risk all those tiny water droplets refreezing inside your camera. That was me. I had to follow the kids into KFC. (You know, why look at beautiful lights when you could have a crispy chicken sandwich...ok, it smelled really good). I was really worried because I had planned to keep my camera frozen and put it in my bag so that it could thaw very slowly. Plan ruined. But everything turned out ok. I was able to wipe off the condensation off my lens before we went back out. Canon 1, Winter's Worst 0.
4. This is a tourist destination, and unfortunately, there are tourists here. When I first walked in, I thought there would be no WAY of getting a nice shot without 200 random strangers in it. But because of the lighting situation, the tourists weren't nearly as in-the-way as I thought they would be. The worst that can happen is that they turn in to silhouettes. 200 silhouettes is kind of interesting.
So, in the end, I would have loved to have taken more shots. But maybe next year...
I was happy with the shots I got considering I really had 0 time to stop and shoot. Hope you like HDR!